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Conservationists and others are crying foul over letters that state lawmakers recently sent President Obama that urged him to not consider expanding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.
They’re specifically concerned about the numbers used to justify opposition, calling the estimated $7 million financial hit to the longline tuna fishing industry misleading at best.
“It’s just a false logic to suggest that a mobile fishery resource has to be fished in this particular location,” said David Henkin, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization.
“You’re talking about catching fish,” Henkin said. “You’re not cutting down trees. You’re not mining for gold.”
Representatives of the longline fishing industry said it’s not so much about the money from ahi they would potentially lose if the monument is expanded as it is about the government further limiting the places they can fish.
“The fact of the matter is that we continue to be squeezed out of traditional areas,” said Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association.
The monument, officially designated by President Bush in 2007 as Papahanaumokuakea, protects the habitat of more than 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which are believed to be found nowhere else. It’s also home to 14 million seabirds that nest there.
The monument’s current protections, which include prohibitions against commercial fishing, extend 50 miles outside the island chain and encompass nearly 140,000 square miles.
Scientists issued a news release Monday announcing the results of a study documenting deep coral reef fish communities in the area composed exclusively of fishes unique to Hawaii.
“This is the highest level of endemism recorded from any marine ecosystem on Earth,” said Randall Kosaki, first author on the study and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries deputy superintendent for Papahanaumokuakea.
“Hawaii’s one of the most remote archipelagos on our planet, so we have many, many species here that are not found anywhere else,” he said.
Prominent Native Hawaiians, environmentalists and fishers have asked Obama to use his executive authority to expand the monument to the maximum limit that federal jurisdiction allows — 200 miles out, with certain exceptions.
But in the lawmakers’ letter to the president, they said the proposed expansion would reduce the size of the Hawaii longline fishing industry by 8 percent. In all, 30 House lawmakers, including Speaker Joe Souki, signed the May 3 letter. Just days earlier, Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi of Kauai sent Obama a nearly identical one.
Kouchi and Rep. James Tokioka, a Kauai lawmaker who circulated the letter on the House side, could not be reached for comment Monday.
The longliners hauled in 27 million pounds of fish in 2013, with a dockside value of $85.4 million. The fish include bigeye and yellowfin tuna, known as ahi in Hawaii, along with swordfish, mahimahi, opah and ono.
The lawmakers complained that an 8 percent reduction would mean 2.16 million pounds less fish, representing a $6.83 million loss to the industry.
“The truth is that longliners do not target the proposed expansion area and mostly go out to foreign waters on their own accord,” said William Aila, a fisherman who now serves as deputy director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
The monument expansion won’t dig into the longline industry’s profits in large part because the fishers have been hitting their ahi quota limit so fast in recent years, conservationists have said.
Hawaii’s longline fleet of 140 boats is allowed to haul in roughly 3,500 metric tons of tuna annually under an international agreement. Longliners fish by stringing out miles of line with thousands of hooks off their boats, targeting bigeye tuna for sashimi markets.
Last year, the longliners hit their quota at record pace, reaching the limit in early August, and it looks like that will happen again this year.
As of Monday, NOAA scientists were forecasting that the Western and Central Pacific longline fishery would hit its quota for bigeye tuna on Aug. 14. They estimated that longliners have already caught 81 percent of the limit.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop fishing in August.
The longliners are already preparing to again pay U.S. Pacific Island territories in exchange for some of their quota so they can continue fishing past the limit.
They paid $200,000 last year for 1,000 tons of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ 2,000-ton quota, and struck a similar agreement with Guam for another 1,000 tons.
In April, CNMI reached an agreement with the Hawaii Longline Association to pay $250,000 for 1,000 tons in each of the next three years.
Martin, of the Hawaii Longline Association, said Monday that there are no plans at this point to strike a similar agreement with Guam as in years past.
He said the three-year deal with CNMI gives longliners and the territory some stability. He added that the money goes toward marine conservation plans developed in the region, helping the territory afford facilities like boat launch ramps, piers and fuel and ice facilities.
NOAA scientists forecast in a paper last month that Hawaii longliners would be able to catch 2,000 tons beyond the 3,500-ton limit by the end of December.
Henkin called this a “shell game” that allows overfishing, but the courts have so far disagreed. A District Court judge ruled in December that federal rules allow Hawaii fishermen to continue sidestepping these international catch limits.
“When the longliners reach their annual ahi quotas early, they just buy the quotas of other regions and keep fishing, even though it’s unsustainable,” Aila said. “What’s worse, they’re selling a large amount of the ahi out of state and the seafood dealers are importing frozen, gas-treated tuna for us to eat.”
Seafood self-sufficiency in Hawaii is roughly 37 percent, according to the letter lawmakers sent Obama. They wrote that seafood was the top food crop in Hawaii in 2011, bringing in some $87.5 million.
Martin has said the local fishing industry needs the flexibility to fish in the area being considered for expansion. He said the longline fleet spends an average of 7 percent to 11 percent of its time there.
Martin said the argument calling into question the financial impact of the monument’s expansion on the longline industry amounted to “splitting hairs.”
“If you follow that logic, are we going to go look for fish? Yeah. Might we find it? Yeah, we might,” he said. “One of the things most important to the industry is maintaining the flexibility and access to certain waters.”
Conservationists argue that if the monument is expanded as proposed and the longliners theoretically lose access to 8 percent of the fish they catch, they’d have four or five months to catch that ahi elsewhere since they are hitting the quota by July or August.
This would have added benefits, too, according to the conservationists. They say if it takes longer for the fishers to reach their quota, that means the market is receiving a steadier supply of tuna throughout the year — and the ahi are being fished less frantically.
“They’re causing the price per pound to just plummet because they’re flooding the market,” Henkin said. “There’s a supply-and-demand situation there.”
The bottom line for longliners is holding onto the fishing areas they currently can access, regardless of how much ahi is caught in the proposed expansion area around the monument.
“The industry looks at the whole northern Pacific as our ice box,” Martin said. “The whole ocean is important to us.”
Bigeye tuna is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a 1,300-member union comprised of government and civil society organizations. The group cites overfishing as a threat, noting significant declines over the past decade.
“With decades of close study, we know marine protected areas are the best mechanism to provide fish for the future,” said Richard Pyle, an associate zoologist in ichthyology at Bishop Museum.
“The expansion is one of the best things we can do for food security in the state,” he said.
The White House sent a delegation to Hawaii last month on a fact-finding mission prompted by the calls to expand the monument. The feds have yet to issue an official proposal.